I’ve always been a musical theater buff, and the theater is my favorite form of entertainment. Because of this, when I consider things that have made me laugh, a particular musical will naturally be the first thing to come to mind. This time, my thoughts went to the show Next to Normal, which, for those who are familiar with it, may seem to be an unlikely choice. Next to Normal tells the story of a highly dysfunctional family: a mother with bipolar disorder, a father who forces a positive attitude, a daughter who cannot handle her mother’s problem and father’s unwillingness to accept it, and a son who…well, I won’t completely ruin it. The themes include social stigmas of mental disorders and the difficulty of dealing with loss. Considering all of the serious issues this show deals with, one might wonder why on earth I would select this as a representation of humor. Actually, it is that exact reason that makes this such a perfect example. Amid heart-wrenching scenes that by the end have, quite literally, the entire audience in tears, one will hears peals of laughter. Although the show is deep and touching, it is also unquestionably a funny show. From the actions of the mother to the ridiculous quirks of the psychotherapist, the script is full of comic relief.
This kind of relief is how Sigmund Freud defines humor. “It is from the saving of expenditure in feeling that the hearer derives the humorous satisfaction” (112), he writes. We laugh at a situation or find pleasure in it because it takes away from feeling a less agreeable emotion. It gives us the ability to redirect stored up energy. Humor, he says, takes the energy that we store up for emotion and redirects it to lighthearted pleasure. This is exactly the case in Next to Normal. The audience begins to store up energy for the emotion they anticipate feeling for Diana, the mother, but that is redirected, for example, when the show takes the heavy subject of Diana’s medications and makes it less weighted in a song that largely exaggerates her psychopharmacologist’s prescriptions. Freud also talks about this redirecting of energy as a displacement of cathexis. He compares this displacement to “alternation between melancholia and mania” (115), and I found it ironic that he might compare a shift in energy focus to bipolar disorder, both of which are greatly present in this show.
Herbert Spencer describes laughter in a similar way. He explores the physiological explanation for laughter and calls it an expulsion of nervous energy. There are many different outlets for nervous energy, he explains, and depending on the situation, energy is discharged in different ways. It can cause certain emotion, ideas, or muscle activities. In the case of laughter, it is a reaction to joy that or certain typed of incongruity that causes nervous energy to take this particular outlet. I found that this was often my reaction while watching Next to Normal. Much of the laughter was mostly involuntary; it was simply my reaction to the tension built up by the story. I released energy that I had—probably, as Freud says, saved up for emotion—and felt a sort of respite from the emotional stress of the plotline. As Spencer says, the result of the laughter was relief.
Descartes view of laughter is one that I do not agree with, especially in relation to Next to Normal. He describes it as a reaction of hostility, anger, or scorn. When he does describe it in relation to wonder or joy, those positive emotions are also accompanied with some sort of hatred. He seems to think that all laughter is cruel or at least mean-spirited. Remembering what it was like to sit in the audience of Next to Normal, I could not disagree more. Although the audience laughed when Diana began manically making sandwiches, laying bread on the floor when no more fit on the table, the laughter cut out as soon as her husband became concerned and it was clear that she wasn’t just being silly. Even the characters to which the audience might garner some hostility, such as the husband, Dan, when his positivity hurt Diana, or the son Gabe when he caused problems, did not provoke laughter or even smirks when they showed pain. The sobs that filled the audience by the start of the second act also countered this view of laughter. Although some laughter may be cruel, that is a very narrow view of the reaction and certainly not one that should define it.
Laughter certainly functions as a relief and a release. I could not have been more grateful for the many humorous moments or witty lines in Next to Normal. It is the lightheartedness of some of the subject matter that makes it endurable, and the ability of the characters provoke laughter that makes it enjoyable. Without the humor, the show might still be decent but not quite as popular. The heavy subject matter coupled with a large amount of humor is actually essential to the effect on the audience. In some ways it teaches us to retain a sense of humor. And we learn from the experience, as I did watching the show, that the best relief is genuine laughter.